Guns kill people, and sometimes they kill a bunch of people in one go, as happened in the recent grocery store shooting in Buffalo, New York, and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Thoughts and prayers, yada yada yada, but what can be done to actually reduce gun violence?
This post focuses on youth gun violence. It also focuses on the United States, because while gun violence is not only an American problem, it is a much bigger problem in the US than in any other developed nation. The graph below starkly demonstrates this.
Doing better for kids
An effective prevention approach needs to include taking a long view at the factors early in life that contribute to violent behaviour later on. People are not born mass murderers; there’s a path they follow to get there, and childhood has a big impact on that path.
Prevention can start even before children are born. Prenatal factors like maternal substance abuse, stress, and malnutrition increase the likelihood of the child developing early-onset aggression, which is a significant risk factor for later antisocial behaviour.
Adverse childhood experiences can increase the risk of future violence. A longitudinal study by Lansford et al. found that physical abuse before age five predicted violent delinquency in adolescence and other dysfunctional behaviours. This was influenced by biased patterns of processing social information, including a tendency to draw on retaliatory aggressive responses and see aggression as morally acceptable.
Poverty can set kids up for failure right from the start. According to US census figures, 16.1% of people under the age of 18 were living in poverty in 2020. Addressing poverty, and particularly child poverty, isn’t going to save lives from gun violence next week or next month, but by supporting healthy childhood development, it can make a difference down the road.
Violence in TV, film, and video games does not make people violent, but such exposure can adversely affect vulnerable children by normalizing violence and desensitizing them to it.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified a number of evidence-based strategies to prevent youth violence, such as:
- Promoting family environments supporting healthy childhood development through interventions like early childhood home visitation and parenting skills programs
- Providing quality preschool education
- Strengthening youth skills through universal school programs in areas like communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, emotional regulation, impulse control, and empathy
- Connect youth with caring adults and activities through mentoring and after-school programs
Identifying those at risk for gun violence
School-related factors that are associated with an increased risk of future violence include:
- academic failure (particularly when it starts in elementary school)
- low school interest
- school dropout
Socially marginalization and rejection by peers can amplify existing predispositions toward aggression. When such youth connect with others in similar positions, that can further increase risk.
While there’s no profile of a typical school shooter, common characteristics of the majority (>50%) of school shooters include:
- have experienced bullying or rejection
- acquired a firearm from home or people they knew
- usually not involved with gangs
- confided in someone about their motives
- had indicators of future violence, such as making threats or past acts of violence
(Source: Price & Khubchandani, 2019)
The role of gender norms
While most men are not violent, perpetrators of gun violence are overwhelmingly male. Toxic masculinity doesn’t help anyone, and we need to stop teaching our boys to restrict their emotions, particularly vulnerable emotions like sadness. Some researchers have suggested that school shooters have a sense of aggrieved entitlement, viewing revenge as appropriate responses for men who have been victimized (e.g. through bullying).
The role of mental health and illness
While mass murderers are not well-adjusted individuals, diagnosable mental illness is not the predictive factor that politicians and the media often make it out to be. The vast majority of people experiencing mental illness do not pose a risk for violence.
However, for the small proportion that do, available, accessible, and effective treatment can help to mitigate that risk on an individual level. Substance abuse can also increase the risk for violence in some individuals, and again, treatment can help to mitigate that.
Not everyone with poor mental health has a mental illness. A lot of hate makes for poor mental health, but hate isn’t a mental illness. Making counselling services more available to youth either in school or after school could help to meet the needs of those kids who are struggling but don’t have an illness that requires treatment.
The Attitudes Toward Guns and Violence Questionnaire (AGVQ) is a standardized test that can be used with children and youth. There are four factors that are associated with children and youth owning or wanting to own a gun:
- the belief that aggression is the only way to undo the shame of being insulted
- beliefs, values, and feelings consistent with a level of comfort with aggression
- feelings of being excited/stimulated by guns
- feelings of power and safety from carrying a gun
There are various risk assessment tools that can be used to evaluate whether an individual has characteristics (both static and dynamic) that are either protective or associated with an increased risk of violence, but these only estimate risk; it’s just not possible to predict who will perpetrate violence and who will not. That being said, “The most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior” (American Psychological Association, 2013).
There’s also a behavioural threat assessment model that was developed in large part by the US Secret Service. This includes assessing threats or violent statements made to peers, evaluating access to weapons, and identifying personal or situation problems that could be addressed through support services in order to reduce desperation and despondency and increase hope.
A role for social media platforms?
Following the 2022 shooting of African Americans at a grocery store in Buffalo, the Governor of New York asked the State Attorney General to investigate the social media platforms that the accused shooter had used to plan, promote, and broadcast his attacks. The shooter had live-streamed his attack on Twitch. Twitch removed it within less than two minutes of it starting, which I think is pretty impressive. The Governor asserted that Twitch should have taken it down “within a second”; I’m not sure how she thought that would even be possible. There have also been media reports that the shooter also posted a 589-page manifesto on Discord.
Social media platforms make an easy target for blame, but I’m not convinced that they make an effective avenue for intervention to actually decrease violence. By the time an individual is posting threats or manifestos, they pose a risk. Taking down those posts seems unlikely to reduce that risk. It shouldn’t be a social media company’s role to evaluate non-criminal speech to assess for a risk of harm to others. However, I can see a role for law enforcement agencies in monitoring risky online activity, especially on hotbeds of antisociality like 4chan. Perhaps social platforms could establish partnerships with law enforcement to flag content that might merit follow-up.
Interventions in schools
Some American school districts have taken steps to “harden” their schools to make them more resistant to violent attacks. Such measures include school resource officers (law enforcement officers in schools), video cameras, bulletproof glass, metal detectors, and active shooter plans. The problem is that there’s a lack of evidence to show that such measures actually work.
The authors of a paper in the journal Violence and Gender warn, “The adoption of ineffective measures to reduce school firearm violence may lull parents, school personnel, and students into thinking they no longer have to be concerned about their safety at school. A false sense of security is a dangerous environment that is currently being propelled by mass media, interest groups, and policymakers.” I think if I was a student at a school where there are metal detectors and teachers packing heat, I would feel less safe, not more.
Schools would likely accomplish more (and spend less) by taking steps to address bullying and resolve conflicts through strategies like peer mediation.
According to polling conducted by Pew Research in April 2021, 53% of Americans favoured stricter gun control laws. There was a huge split based on political leanings, with 81% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents favouring stricter laws and only 20% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. There was also a split between rural and urban dwellers, with urban dwellers being more likely to support stricter gun control, regardless of political affiliation.
In the same poll, 49% of respondents thought stricter gun control laws would result in fewer mass shootings, 42% thought it would make no difference, and 9% thought it would result in more mass shootings. You’ve gotta wonder who those 9% are.
While the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) makes background checks quick and easy, private party sales and sales at gun shows often don’t require background checks. Regardless, there are limitations to what can be accomplished with background checks; everyone is a non-criminal right up until the point that they commit their first crime.
Extreme risk protection orders
As of July 2020, 19 states and the District of Columbia had red flag laws that allow the courts to issue extreme risk protection orders. These orders temporarily restrict an individual’s right to access firearms based on concerns raised by petitioners (e.g. family, school officials) that the individual poses an imminent risk for violence.
This seems like a sensible thing that should exist as a bare minimum in all states.
While people often talk about “assault rifles”, there’s no single agreed-upon definition of what constitutes an assault rifle. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) describes semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 as “Modern Sporting Rifles”; it uses the term “assault rifle” only for fully automatic weapons. Semi-automatic weapons automatically load the next bullet, but one trigger pull releases one bullet, whereas with a fully automatic weapon, bullets will continue to fire as long as the trigger is depressed.
The NSSF offers the following statistics in a 2020 article:
- “Since 1990, there are an estimated 19.8 million Modern Sporting Rifles (MSRs) in circulation today.”
- “There are approximately 71.2 million pistol magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, and 79.2 million rifle magazines capable of holding 30 or more rounds in circulation.”
Thirty or more rounds? For a civilian? That’s terrifying.
The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons ban, which expired in 2004, banned magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Some American cities and states currently have high-capacity magazine bans, with each jurisdiction having its own definition of the number of rounds that constitutes a high-capacity magazine.
A big reason why this is an American problem rather than an everywhere problem is the Constitution’s Second Amendment, passed in 1791. It states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I’m sure lawmakers at the time never dreamed what a shitshow that would create in the 21st century. I wonder if they would have worded it differently had they seen semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines in their handy dandy crystal ball.
Driving hard to the net on the Second Amendment is the National Rifle Association, which has considerable lobbying power. According to OpenSecrets, it and its subsidiaries spent $3.22 million on federal lobbying in 2019. That’s a lot of influence.
The US Senate is a significant barrier to changing gun laws. Senate filibuster rules allow 41 of 100 senators to prevent a bill from going to a vote. That gives a lot of power to a minority. An article in The Atlantic points out that because states each get two senators regardless of their population, the Republican representation in the Senate often outweighs the proportion of the overall population that they represent, which gives more weight to pro-gun views.
Let’s say that gun control legislation did make it through the Senate, as unlikely as that seems. What on earth do you do with the 20 million or so semiautomatic rifles that are already in circulation? You’ve probably got plenty of people like Charlton Heston who wouldn’t give up their guns unless it was “from my cold, dead hands.” Do those people get shipped off to jail, probably taking out multiple police officers along the way? For other people who aren’t quite so attached to their semi-automatics, do you try to get some of those weapons out of circulation with a buy-back program? That would be an expensive proposition.
That’s something the Canadian government decided to do. It surprised me that semi-automatic weapons were even a thing here, but in 2020, the federal government banned specific weapons it describes as “assault-style firearms.” They set up an amnesty period, giving gun owners until 2023 to turn in their now-prohibited firearms. The government has promised (but not yet implemented) a buy-back program to give people “fair compensation.”
Besides controlling the number of guns, “smart guns” are an option to reduce risk; these only allow the gun to be fired by an authorized user. That doesn’t stop anyone from buying a gun, but it can get in the way of youth using their parents’ firearms.
Banning high-capacity magazines countrywide strikes me as a basic sensible choice that should be a bare minimum to address the issue of gun violence. It seems like it would be relatively easy to implement, plus how on earth is there any good reason for a civilian to be able to fire off 10+ rounds before needing to reload? The fact that the 1994 ban lapsed in 2004 and hasn’t been brought back since is just incomprehensible to me.
So what now?
As much as gun control seems like the answer (after all, that’s what sets the US apart from countries that don’t have that level of gun violence), the Second Amendment isn’t going anywhere, and the Senate filibuster likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon either. However, when politicians respond to yet another mass shooting by blaming mental illness and defending guns, that’s shameful. I don’t know how to stop that, but maybe people need to stop voting politicians like that into office.
Dealing with the gun situation is essential, but it’s also important for prevention work to happen before anyone tries to get their hands on a gun. Violent youth and adults aren’t suddenly appearing out of nowhere. America needs to do better for its children, and that’s got to be a long-term project. Guns make the killing part easier, but they’re not what plants the early seeds.
Gun violence is a complex problem, and the more angles it can be approached from, the better. But more thoughts and prayers? No; that’s already happening. It’s time for action. Not short-sighted knee-jerk reactions, but actions that address the people and the guns that come together to produce violent deaths. Then those actions need to be carefully evaluated to make sure they’re actually working; if not, then it’s time to come up with more actions.
That’s the least that America can do for all those who have lost their lives to senseless violence.
- American Psychological Association. (2013). Gun violence: Prediction, prevention, and policy.
- Brownstein, R. (2022). The real reason America doesn’t have gun control. The Atlantic.
- Caspani, M. (2022, May 18). New York state opens probe of social media platforms used by Buffalo shooting suspect. Reuters.
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.(2016). A comprehensive technical package for the prevention of youth violence and associated behaviors. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
- Government of Canada. Taking action to reduce gun violence.
- Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. (n.d.). Extreme risk protection orders.
- Lansford, J. E., Miller-Johnson, S., Berlin, L. J., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J. E., & Pettit, G. S. (2007). Early physical abuse and later violent delinquency: A prospective longitudinal study. Child Maltreatment, 12(3), 233-245.
- National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. (2005). Firearms and violence: A critical review.
- Price, J. H., & Khubchandani, J. (2019). School firearm violence prevention practices and policies: Functional or folly?. Violence and Gender, 6(3), 154-167.
- Wikipedia: High capacity magazine ban